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Mindful of the upcoming Tercentenary Celebration in 1936, James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) opted for a minimal installation ceremony in the Faculty Room of University Hall on Oct. 9, 1933. There was little else minimal about him. Conant operated on a grand scale like Lowell’s but saw his proper task as populating Lowell’s vastly expanded physical plant with talented students and scholars.
Toward this end, at his very first Harvard Corporation meeting (Sept. 1933), Conant proposed an effort later known as the 300th Anniversary Fund. Within two years, it supported the creation of (1) the special academic position of University Professor, which gives exceptional scholars the run of the University to foster cross-disciplinary research on the frontiers of knowledge, and (2) National Scholarships for highly promising students, regardless of financial means. By seeking out and assisting students who might not otherwise attend college, the National Scholarships enhanced undergraduate diversity.
Through issues surrounding the selection of National Scholarship recipients, Conant became deeply involved in the expanded use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test developed by Princeton’s Carl Campbell Brigham. Conant eventually headed the commission whose recommendations led to the formation of the Educational Testing Service in 1947.
Immersion in such major public questions typified the man. Conant testified before U.S. Senate committees (e.g., on federal aid to education, creation of the National Science Foundation, and the Lend-Lease Bill). He conferred with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served as a defense-research emissary to England. In July 1944, Conant offered the facilities of Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (Washington, D.C.) for a U.S. State Department conference on postwar security. The resulting Dumbarton Oaks Proposals laid the foundations of the United Nations Charter.
Conant’s most remarkable governmental role began in 1941 with an appointment to chair the National Defense Research Committee and, later, to serve as special deputy to Vannevar Bush, head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. As a result, Conant was among the first to receive word of Enrico Fermi’s success in generating the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction - a critical step toward the atomic bomb. In July 1945 at Alamogordo, N.M., Conant witnessed the first atomic-bomb test. Shortly after World War II, he traveled to Moscow for talks (involving Great Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union) on international control of the bomb.
In the midst of the war, Conant and Provost Paul H. Buck launched a review of the undergraduate curriculum that produced the General Education Program, a reform that shaped Harvard undergraduate studies for more than three decades to come. Published in 1945 as “General Education in a Free Society” (a.k.a. the “Red Book”), the program profoundly influenced high school and college curricula nationwide.
Wartime brought another major change to Harvard classrooms: in summer 1943, Radcliffe women (previously taught in separate, duplicated classes) for the first time attended classes with Harvard men. The “temporary” measure soon became permanent. In 1949, Lamont Library opened as the nation’s first library expressly designed for undergraduates. Seven years earlier, the Houghton Library (for rare books and manuscripts) had opened as the world’s first library with built-in climate control.
The Conant years also saw the birth of major new Harvard subdivisions such as the Graduate School of Public Administration (1935; now the John F. Kennedy School of Government), the Graduate School of Design (1936), and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism (1937). In 1939, the President’s Office moved from University Hall to its current location in Massachusetts Hall.
National duty tapped on Conant’s shoulder once again in 1953: President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Conant to serve as the U.S. high commissioner for Germany, a job that required him to leave Harvard. On Sept. 1, Conant became president emeritus.
James Bryant Conant
President of Harvard University 1933-1953